Helping for the holidays

The winter is a crucial time for children in need
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When Maribeth Groen talks about kids in need in Kent County, she doesn’t just talk about the poverty level — she talks about something more subtle. 

Groen is the director of marketing and communications for the Heart of West Michigan United Way. She said that about 10% of people in Kent County live below the federal poverty level; but an additional 25% of the county is “ALICE” — asset-limited, income-constrained, employed. These people might not fit a strong definition of poverty, but they’re living precariously all the same. 

“There’s the assumption — okay, they’re working. They may be considered to be working a good job, maybe like a bank teller, but really, their income is just not the level that the household needs to thrive,” she said. 

And with post-pandemic inflation, the cost of housing and childcare and more has been making things even harder. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Midwest inflation ran at an annual 8.6% clip into summer 2022; rental costs grew by 16.6% in Kent County from 2019 into early 2022. It’s a sobering reminder that need is everywhere in West Michigan — maybe even more common than a casual look might suggest. 

“People think poverty is an urban, city issue. And it’s not,” she said. “In fact, Cedar Springs has one of the highest ALICE rates in the county.”

There are plenty of ways to help out, this holiday season — especially for kids. Groen encouraged people to seek out the Heart of West Michigan United Way’s holiday giving guide, which can help connect people to a wide range of groups and programs. It will publish in early November and will be available on the web at hwmuw.org. 

And there are a lot of local groups that address need in ways that are probably invisible to the average West Michigan resident. Meg Derrer is the executive director of the Refugee Education Center, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that connects refugee youth with tutoring and classroom programming that helps make their arrival in the U.S. — and their entry into an American public school — smoother.  That can make a big difference for a refugee youth who is still acclimating to life in a new place.

“If (people) are reading this in November, and December, we’d be starting up in January, and they would have the opportunity to sign up to be a volunteer and help with our tutoring program or driving kids to a tutoring site,” Derrer said, adding that the group is also open to donations as well as employers that can give workplace tours, work experience or the like to older program participants. 

And there’s also the program everyone has already heard of: Toys for Tots is running once again this year in Kent County. Jeff DeJonge, the program coordinator for Kent County, said that collection bins will be available in early November, accepting new, unwrapped toys; they’ll be picked up a week before Christmas. 

DeJonge also noted that donors throughout West Michigan can find their local Toys for Tots campaigns at toysfortots.org. He notes that financial donations are also helpful for the program, since organizers often need to purchase presents for any gaps in age levels at the end of the toy drive. 

“Seeing the parents light up when they find that toy for that child — It’s not the child’s fault that their parents can’t afford something,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to give something back to the children.” 

Hidden need
But not all needs are material. Around the country, young people are grappling with a less visible form of need — in the form of growing rates of depression, anxiety and death by suicide. The White House announced initiatives in late July to boost school-linked mental health services, noting that more than 40% of teens “struggle with persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” 

“Even before the pandemic, rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among youth were on the rise,” a White House release states. “The pandemic exacerbated those issues, disrupting learning, relationships, and routines and increasing isolation – especially among our nation’s young people.” 

Hannah Schneider is a therapist at the Counseling Center of West Michigan, where she works with youth from age four to young adulthood. She’s seen more and more cases of anxiety — and especially social anxiety — at her work. That comes as mental health care gets more normalized, as as kids grapple with anxieties linked to the pandemic, school shootings or even the political climate. 

“I had a super transparent conversation with a kid the other day that was like, it’s either one viewpoint or the other, and everybody hates each other,” Schenider said. “And if people don’t believe in what you believe in, then you’re wrong.

She said parents can help by being a safe, supportive listening ear for their kids — a simple matter of talking less and listening more that gives kids the space and permission to open up.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a kid sit in my office and just say, ‘Thank you for not making me feel weird or overdramatic,’ or, ‘hypersensitive,’ some of those negative terms that can be thrown out there for somebody who is feeling their feelings, as I like to say,” Schneider said. 

Adults being open about their own fears and anxieties can help, she added, and so can modeling healthy habits and inviting kids to join — even when it’s as simple as going on a walk. 

“Kind of showing that like, ‘Hey, I had a bad day, this is what makes me feel better. Do you want to join me?’” Schneider said.

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